1 Feb 2013

The Saudis in the eye of the beholder

Here’s an interesting question. Is there a British military boot “in action” anywhere in the world whose enemy is not backed by Saudi interests? It is a question I asked in the course of a debate centred on Iran, which I chaired this week at the Royal United Services Institute.

From Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east, to Syria in the Middle East, and Libya and Mali in the west, many of the jihadists, rebels, insurgents and terrorists allegedly draw financial support from either Saudi or allied Gulf money.

Western intelligence is divided about the extent to which these monies can ultimately be tracked to the Saudi royal family, the family-dominated government, Saudi business, or bazaar and tribal sources. Early in the growth of al-Qaeda, and bin Laden’s rise to influence, an informal understanding was reached that the movement would be tolerated providing it operated beyond Saudi borders. After 9/11 the levying of taxes in Saudi market places, which found their way to al-Qaeda, was banned.

The Saudi Wahhabi brand of conservative Islam imposes an obligation upon the faithful to propagate the faith across the world. The Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs has co-ordinated the multi-billion pound spending on some fifteen hundred sizeable Wahhabi-oriented mosques and madrasas worldwide over the past two decades.

In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya, Saudi-funded mosques and madrasas are being built at a furious rate, funded by Saudi money. In Kabul, the Saudis have begun building the giant $100m new mosque and Islamic education centre. This mirrors the vast Faisal mosque which they built in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in 1988.

At the same time, in the latest financial year for which figures are available, it is estimated that the Saudis were the world’s seventh largest military spender. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, they spent some $48bn. BAe Systems is currently trying to negotiate a £7 bn deal to sell Eurofighter/Typhoon jet to the Saudis.

Contracts with the Saudis secure thousands of jobs in Britain. Without the trade, unemployment in the UK would be still higher.

British military boots are somewhere “in action” in Mali, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In a covert or advisory capacity they are in and out of Somalia, Kenya, Yemen and elsewhere.

As western powers grapple with the consequences of the war in Mali, and the killing of 34 westerners in the Algerian desert at the BP complex, with what energy is the intelligence community tracking the sources of the funding to the jihadist forces involved?

Follow @jonsnowC4 on Twitter.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4